Whispering Pines: “To Cooperate with Others for Common Ends…”

In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 ponders “short-lived expressions of teamwork” and the long Bowdoin tradition of working toward a common goal.

The article in the November 1931 issue of The Bowdoin Alumnus was an eye-catcher; “The Future of Polo at Bowdoin” was accompanied by a photograph of a dozen men on horseback on a narrow field that was ringed by white pine trees. Dean Paul Nixon commented that in the spring of 1931 it was a common sight to see a group of Bowdoin students ride horses through town to a practice field in the back of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity house (now Quinby House). The Bowdoin Riding Club team was formed after alumni in the Portland area had invited students to join polo matches on Sundays in Cape Elizabeth. Two students rode with the Portland Club in the summer of 1931. As Freeland Harlow ’32 later wrote, the expenses included the use of horse ($2.25/week), club dues ($2.00/month), mallet and riding clothes ($4.00). Hampered by a home practice field that was too narrow for safe play and often riding unfamiliar horses, the Bowdoin team’s record consisted of three losses to the Portland Club (10-1, 18-5, and 8-5) and a 10-1 loss to Norwich. It may have been the logistical challenges of fielding a team and maintaining a string of polo ponies, or the deepening economic difficulties of the Great Depression, but within a year or two the Psi U field had been sold and partitioned into deep backyard lots for homes on McKeen and Boody Streets. The Bowdoin Riding Club became an historical footnote.

While the polo experiment didn’t result in the establishment of the sport at Bowdoin, it did tap into a much deeper tradition – one of students working together to achieve a goal. Intercollegiate athletics at Bowdoin began in the last half of the 19th century with the grassroots efforts of students – in arranging schedules, managing independent budgets, acquiring equipment, finding venues for practice and competition, and engaging coaches. By and large the College responded to students requests, such as the removal of trees on the Delta (to the east of Adams Hall) to create a field for baseball in 1860, or allowing some absences from classes to participate in athletic contests. In the early 20th century the College assumed greater responsibility for the management of the athletic program through an Athletic Council, made up of alumni, faculty and students. Until 1935 the council (and not the President, the Dean of the College, or the Athletic Director) controlled the hiring and firing of coaches. However, the incorporation of athletic programs within the College’s administrative structure did not substantially change the fact that the decision to participate in (or withdraw from participating in) intercollegiate athletics in a given sport was driven by student involvement.

Despite Bowdoin’s outward appearance of ivy-covered traditions that are as unyielding as brick, the College’s greatest asset may be the willingness of its students, faculty, and alumni to explore new possibilities and be open to change.

Each cohort of alumni has its own set of stories to tell about the College, viewed from the vantage point of unique moments in time, place, and circumstance. The history of the College is filled with examples of students exploring the cultural, intellectual, and popular currents of the day. Interests may wax and wane with the times or with annual changes in the composition of the student body. Bowdoin no longer has an intercollegiate tug-o-war team, as it did in the early 1890s; the mandolin club fell victim to changing musical tastes; after a hiatus of some years rowing and fencing were re-established at Bowdoin; rugby was introduced to the College by President Roger Howell ’58; and the Bowdoin Arrow Throwing Association enjoyed a brief moment in the sun by hosting the world championships in May of 1969. I’ve always felt that one of the College’s greatest strengths was its willingness to give students a role in shaping their own education, whether it took the form of civil rights involvement in the 1960s, learning the typesetter’s art on an antique hand-operated printing press, or in theater or dance productions created, directed, and performed by students.

As we reflect on our years at Bowdoin, the short-lived expressions of teamwork and commitment should not be assigned a lesser value than is granted to established outlets for student activity. Through the pioneering efforts of the Bowdoin Riding Club polo team of 1931, pointed campus commentary given physical form by the spring projects of the Green Hornet Construction Company, and countless other initiatives by students over the years there runs a common thread. Despite Bowdoin’s outward appearance of ivy-covered traditions that are as unyielding as brick, the College’s greatest asset may be the willingness of its students, faculty, and alumni to explore new possibilities and be open to change. From a long-range perspective then, we may be well served to heed President William DeWitt Hyde’s advice to “…lose yourself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends,” even if the fruits of collective labor are limited to a single season.

 

With Best Wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Ken Clarke says:

    Not to be forgotten: Visiting Professor Marcus Merriman’s “arrow chuckers” who gathered with much determination for matches at the Stowe House in the mid-1970s, though I am struggling to find some measure of the “common good” in these Thursday evening exercises….

  2. Jim Cubeta says:

    The tradition of non-traditional sports continues with the exploits of the curling team this year.

  3. Paul O. Johnson '60 says:

    Most enjoyable; thanks John. The Outing Club in the late ’50’s was catch-as-catch-can, too. Rod Boucher ’59 rounded up winter camping equipment for an semester-break snowshoe expedition up Mt. Washington which was most memorable for me as a new
    camper.

  4. Dave Larsson says:

    “or in theater or dance productions created, directed, and performed by students.”

    Here, here.

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